The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops is now into its second week. Now the Synod Fathers are supposed to break into small groups - no one seems exempt from that contemporary convention - to discuss the themes that surfaced int he first week. The working document (Relatio) for this is supposed to serve as a sort of summary of where the discussion seems to have been leading thus far. That Relatio was released earlier today by the General Relator, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo. It reads awkwardly in places - perhaps the fault of the unofficial translation, perhaps a reflection of the hasty composition of the original. That said, it is an especially noteworthy document.
Not surprisingly, some voices on one side have already begun to go ballistic about it. On the other side, Huffington Post, for example, has characterized it as an "earthquake." Reading it through the lens of our contemporary culture war within the Church (especially here in North America), Mark Silk at RNS sees an ongoing debate between "those who follow Pope Francis in seeing the Church as a field hospital caring for wounded souls" and those "who want the Church to serve as a firewall against the moral corruption of the age." Such language - and its insistence on an either/or mentality - seems to me to be a bit extreme, especially given that we are still talking about not a final product but a document for discussion. Still, it does seem to be the case that this document does try to go beyond the dead-end of our (especially North American) culture war in favor of an alternative vocabulary that definitely does pose some promising possibilities for further conversation.
The document begins by "listening," i.e., looking at the actual contemporary context of family life. It warns against an "individualism that distorts family bonds and ends up considering each component of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the prevalence of an idea of the subject formed according to his or her own wishes, which are assumed as absolute." It also addresses the impact of our contemporary culture of feeling, in which "a greater need is encountered among individuals to take care of themselves, to know their inner being, and to live in greater harmony with their emotions and sentiments, seeking a relational quality in emotional life." It asks "how an this attention to the care for oneself be cultivated and maintained, alongside this desire for family?"
The Relatio then moves forward to consider family issues with "a fixed gaze on Jesus Christ." Applying the ecumenical hermeneutic of Lumen Gentium, 8, it tries to approach problematic cases like cohabitation, civil marriage, and divorce and remarriage with some of the sensibility Vatican II employed regarding non-Catholic Christians and non-Christian religions. In what may be one of its more important sentences, it says "the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and an imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings."
Parenthetically, it seems to me that Catholic life as actually experienced in families in which one or members may be in some kind of problematic or irregular sexual situation has for some time been moving in this direction, as has much actual pastoral practice. To present an ideal, but also to be able to recognize "the constructive elements in those situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to that ideal" is not such a novel notion in ordinary life, although it is novel to see it expressed in this fashion in a Synod document.
The Relatio goes on to speak about evangelization as "not merely about presenting a set of regulations but about putting forward values, responding to the need of those who find themselves today even in the most secularized countries." It speaks of "a conversion of all pastoral practices" and the need "for an evangelization that denounces clearly the cultural, social, and economic factors, for example, the excessive room given to market logic, that prevents an authentic family life, leading to discrimination, poverty, exclusion, and violence."
The Relatio does not offer solutions to particular problems like Communion for the divorced and remarried that have so monopolized media attention, It seems evident there is as yet no clear consensus on how best to address that question. What the document does do is try to define parameters and principles to direct discussion of such specific questions.
Particularly moving is the tone adopted in regard to the seemingly forever neuralgic issue of homosexuality, "Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community; are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities" Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"
Obviously these are profoundly challenging issues for the Church, which will rightly elicit a diversity of responses and will require intensely spiritual discernment. The Synod certainly has its work cut out for it!